Shannon at the festival

UTM Alum’s class-made book wins Whistler Independent Book Award

Sabrina Sy

"People saying they read the book continues to bewilder me,” says Shannon Terrell (HBA 2019 UTM) when asked about the reception for her classroom-made book The Guest House: Stories of a Nervous Mind. The UTM alumna won the 2022 Whistler Independent Book Award in the non-fiction category.  

With a double major in Professional Writing and Communications (PWC) and English, Terrell developed and published her memoir through the Making a Book – WRI420 course in her final year of undergraduate studies. In the book, she details her struggles with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Somatic Symptom Disorder while learning to navigate the physical and psychological manifestations of anxiety.


Classroom Community

Terrell transferred to UTM as a part-time third-year student after taking a break from academia. Although she was only on campus when her work as a freelance writer permitted, she immediately felt “a sense of belonging and kinship” at UTM, particularly in smaller classes.

“What sold the PWC program for me was just the intimacy of the classes. You get to know every single person’s face and name, and you get to have [more meetings] with the professors.”

The program also fulfilled her passion for writing. Terrell was drawn to fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure stories in her youth and even wrote a novel. One of her introductory PWC classes was aptly named Creative Non-Fiction – WRI173 (previously WRI203)This class lets students write short stories based on their real-life experiences while focusing on specific themes like childhood or romance. Terrell included some of the short stories she had written for her Creative Non-Fiction class in The Guest House.

Throughout her undergrad, Terrell unintentionally developed her manuscript in every PWC class that she took. She built the backbone of her book in Community and Writing – WRI225 and created complex and nuanced characters in her Character, Narrator, and Psychic Spaces – WRI483  class. She won the Dean’s Creative Writing Award for stories she wrote in her Character, Narratives, and Psychic Spaces class. Professor John Currie, who nominated Terrell for the award, shares why her work stood out:

“In her prose, Terrell achieves what I strive for in teaching narrative nonfiction: that multiple exciting ways exist for the writer to convey rich, complex lived experiences. She uses, for example, in Chapter One, a series of vignettes that add up to, rather than directly label, the chaos and exuberance she and her brother encountered at the many places her divorced father lived and moved on from.”

In her stories, Terrell bares the fears and complexities of her healing process. It can be intimidating to share very personal experiences with strangers, but Terrell says, “The process of writing the stories was a way of taking ownership over some of those difficult moments. And publishing them felt like a way of letting go a little bit and moving forward.”


The Story of Making a Book

Terrell realized she could curate the stories she had accumulated from her writing classes into a bigger story to highlight mental health issues. This was a chance to connect with readers struggling with their own challenges.

She signed up for PWC associate professor Guy Allen’s Making a Book class. Professor Allen pitched the class 22 years ago and has been its “ringmaster” ever since. He draws on his early experiences of making his own books, and this class allowed him to guide his students to make their own books.

During her “three-month pressure cooker” experience in the class, Terrell had to pick the right narratives to convey the most comprehensive version of her experience. The workshop-style class taught her that, as the author, she had creative control over how her story was told. Terrell and her peers learned the process of making their manuscripts printer-ready – using the InDesign software, tinkering with typesetting, adjusting margins, choosing colours and fonts, hiring a professional editor, and designing the book cover —all within one semester.

At the end of the semester, students procure printed copies of their books and celebrate their achievements with a book launch.

“When your book is in your hand, it’s something that you have your full name to and you have for the rest of your writing career. And that is a very special opportunity that you might not get otherwise.”


The Little Book That Could: From Toronto to Whistler

Shannon Terrell holding her awards
Terrell accepts her award for the Whistler Independent Book Award for the non-fiction category.
Photo credit: Shannon Terrell

Since the book’s publication in 2019, Professor Currie has included The Guest House in his curriculum.  “If I consider student-authored work good enough to serve as peer writing models,” Currie says, “it follows that this same work should be rich enough for serious study.” Terrell has returned to UTM to discuss the book with UTM students and has edited manuscripts for students in the Making a Book course.

She finally decided to send her book to the Whistler Independent Book Awards in 2022. A few months later, the committee notified Terrell that she was a finalist for the non-fiction category and invited her to the Whistler Writers Festival in B.C.

The Whistler Writers Festival gave Terrell the surreal opportunity to sell her books, share excerpts from the book, and meet other authors, editors, and publishers from across the country. When the committee announced her as one of the winners, Terrell said: “I was confused. I was shocked. I was terrified I was gonna fall down the stairs.”

From Mississauga to Whistler, The Guest House shows how a classroom experience can lead to unlimited opportunities.

While Terrell is ready to give The Guest House a little break, she is not stepping away from writing. The award-winning author is busy in her role as the lead writer and spokesperson for NerdWallet, a personal finance website, and writing stories in her spare time. She recently published a short story in Archetype, a Toronto-based literary journal, and is working on two more stories for potential publication. Terrell also applied for the Master’s in Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia.

To aspiring authors, she passes along the advice Professor Allen gave the class – get your work out there.

“Submit often and don’t stop. You never know what’s going to come out of it, but you can’t know if you don’t try. Every response, every review, every rejection, all of that adds to your experience and your portfolio, as a writer.”


The 2023 cohort of the Making a Book course will host their book launch on June 5th at 7 PM in-person and online. Get your tickets here.